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A Homeowner's Guide to the Basics

It is not unusual for HVACR technicians to be inundated with questions from homeowners about basic maintenance and troubleshooting for furnaces, air conditioners and all sorts of household appliances. It makes good business and public relations sense to provide customers with basic information that keeps their HVACR systems and appliances running well, and let them know when it is a good idea to call an HVACR professional.

This guide was put together by John Curth, CM, a retired Member of the Central Arizona Chapter.

Keep the manuals

First advice to homeowners: Keep all appliance manuals and related paperwork together. Since they all have a limited warranty, they are needed for verification when calling for service.

A/C and furnace

This includes forced air, hot water, steam, or if electric— resistance, using gas, oil, electric or propane as fuel. Each system has its own special points to look at when not operating properly.

Gas forced air heat burner areas must be kept clean and free from obstructions.

The pilot light must ignite to light the burner when the thermostat gives the call for heat. If it does not, contact a HVACR technician for further diagnostics.

Maintenance: A key step is replacing the filter in the blower section. Remove the old filter, noting how it was installed. The retaining framing holds the filter in place so that when the fan is on, it will not pull the filter into the blower housing. Also, put the change date on the new filter as a reminder. Depending on filter type, change it every 30-60 days.

Propane gas forced air heat works the same as natural gas, just with a different fuel.

Gas hot water systems usually mean that a boiler heats the water/steam to heat the home. On a call for heat, the ignitor or glow coil will light the gas when the valve opens. Safety sensors verify that it is OK to ignite. If this doesn’t happen, call an HVACR technician for diagnostics.

Issue: Leaks. They do happen. If there is a gas leak contact the fire department immediately. Open windows, turn off the gas, don’t light any matches or use any other appliances, and evacuate the home.

Oil heat works on forced air or hot water/steam systems. The significant difference is the fuel and the lighting of the burner. On a call for heat from the thermostat two things happen: the ignitors spark and the oil pump motor turns on. This sequence usually happens immediately. Sensors will then turn off the ignitors and the oil pump motor will continue to run as long as the thermostat is calling for heat. If not, call an HVACR tech for further diagnostics.

Electric heat works on forced air or hot water/steam systems. Everything is enclosed and not visible to the homeowner. Unless the homeowner is knowledgeable of electric meters usage, it is best to contact an HVACR technician.

A/C & heat pumps

Air conditioning is normally used in summertime, but today’s heat pumps are A/C systems that, with some additional pieces, now provide heat when it is cold. How does it work? It transfers heat from one space to another by pumping refrigerant from one area to another. It is that simple. It does this by using a compressor and fans to circulate the air. These systems require filters be changed on a regular basis to keep the system clean, which is critical.

Issue: If nothing works on a call for cooling then there is a power problem. This is probably either a tripped breaker or blown fuse. When some parts of the system seem to be working and other parts are not, call an HVACR technician.


First of all, all refrigerators run 16-18 hours a day and are frost-free. This is normal.

Yearly maintenance is quite simple: First unplug refrigerator. The condenser coils, known also as the heat exchanger, need to be kept clean. This is easily done with a coil brush and vacuum. Open the refrigerator door and remove front lower panel. It just pops off. Take a brush and clean the coils. Use a vacuum to clean lint, dust, animal hair, or whatever may come out from underneath. If there are pets in the home, it should be done twice a year. With no animals, once is sufficient. If coils are on backside of unit, vacuum off the build-up on the back.

When underneath, be careful not to hit the condenser fan blade in the rear of the unit with the coil cleaning brush. If the homeowner hears a clacking noise when they turn the refrigeration back on, this means they hit one of the fan blades. This is easily remedied: unplug the unit. Pull unit away from wall, remove the back panel, straighten blades of fan, and then turn it back on. If unit is quiet, replace back panel. If not, repeat process.

Keeping the condenser coils clean will help maintain the efficiency of the unit. It will also help achieve a long and happy life for the unit. It is like anything else in life: a little care goes a long way.

Door seals should be inspected at regular intervals. Be careful of food or liquid spillage, which can cause binding and tearing of seals, which then prevents proper door closure and reduces efficiency. The unit will work overtime if it is sucking in room temperature air. If door seals are damaged, have an appliance technician adjust or replace them if necessary.

 A clean refrigerator will save money in the long run. Watch the heaviness of items in crispers. Often people overload them and the running tracks give way. Once again common sense will saves money and time.

Issue: Break downs. If nothing is working on a refrigerator, not even the light: 1) Check the breaker. 2) Plug unit into another outlet, preferably not in the kitchen. This is the only time it is okay to use an extension cord. Otherwise this is never advisable as it can cause all kinds of damage to the unit during regular use.Then plug it back in. Does unit work? If yes, call electrician—the outlet is inoperative. If no, call an appliance technician because there is an electrical problem inside the unit. Many times I have gone out and simply plugged the unit into a different breaker line, and the unit works fine. Always do the simple steps first.

Issue: Freezer is cold, but refrigerator section is warm. This could be several different things. First, check to see if there is any air movement in the freezer section. If none, then look at freezer section. Does it have ice build-up or strong frost pattern? If either of these conditions occurs, then place all food in a cooler to keep it cold and unplug the unit for 4-8 hours. Using a hair dryer in freezer section will cut down unplug time greatly. Simply wave the hair dryer back and forth in the rear of the freezer. If there is an ice buildup, this indicates a defrost problem. By melting the ice, the unit will run again normally, but only for a short time. The homeowner will need an appliance technician to correct the problem. Remember: food loss can be costly. Anytime something appears not quite right, call for technical support. Better safe than sorry.

Issue: Compressor clicks on and off frequently. This can be an easy fix. Do not assume that the compressor is out. It could be as easy as repairing a broken wire or replacing a condenser fan motor. Remember to try simple repair steps first before leaping to more complex steps.

Refrigerator ice maker: This is actually an appliance within an appliance, only the freezer section is doing the work. It requires very little maintenance by the homeowner except the replacement of the water line filter once a year. Tip: Write the date on the filter when changing it.

Water heaters

Most owners’ manuals will instruct homeowners to drain their unit once a year through water valve or the pressure valve for regular maintenance.

Issue: Electric water heater not heating. 1) Check circuit breaker. 2) Press reset button if unit has one. It normally is a red button. If neither corrects the problem, call appliance technician.

Issue: Gas water heater not heating. Check the pilot. Directions are normally on the front of the tank. If in doubt call either appliance technician or gas company.

Issue: Unit leaks water. This normally requires replacement of product. Check warranty for replacement procedure. Make sure leak is from the tank and not a safety valve or water line.

If unit is older, simply replace and save time and energy. Common sense is the key.


RSES is the leading education, training and certification preparation organization for HVACR professionals. RSES publishes various comprehensive industry training and reference materials in addition to delivering superior educational programs designed to benefit HVACR professionals at every stage of their careers through instructor-led training courses, online training for HVAC, educational seminars, interactive CD and DVD products, industry-related reference manuals, and helpful technical content through Service Application Manual chapters, the RSES Journal, the RSES Journal archives and feature articles, as well as web-exclusive features.

Beginning with basic theory and extending to complex troubleshooting, training courses covering refrigeration and air conditioning, heating, electricity, controls, heat pumps and safety may be conducted in a classroom environment or though self study. RSES publications may be purchased by schools, contractors, manufacturers or any other industry group wanting to conduct comprehensive training programs. Seminars covering air conditioning troubleshooting, electrical troubleshooting, compressor training, condenser training, refrigerant piping practices, DDC controls, and more are held in various cities across North America.

Select training programs offer Continuing Education Units (CEUs) and NATE Continuing Education Hours (CEHs).

In addition, RSES offers industry certification preparation materials for refrigerant handling (EPA Section 608), R-410A and North American Technician Excellence (NATE) examinations.

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